Recently, Tim O’Reilly askedIs Linking to Yourself the Future of the Web?

In his post, he observed that many online properties are linking to themselves more than they’re linking out, oftentimes by building aggregators of some form or another to do so.

He stated:

“When this trend spreads (and I say “when”, not “if”), this will be a tax on the utility of the web that must be counterbalanced by the utility of the intervening pages. If they are really good, with lots of useful, curated data that you wouldn’t easily find elsewhere, this may be an acceptable tax. In fact, they may even be beneficial, and a real way to increase the value of the site to its readers. If they are purely designed to capture additional clicks, they will be a degradation of the web’s fundamental currency, much like the black hat search engine pages that construct link farms out of search engine results.”

He suggested to web publishers that:

  • The majority of links on any given page should be to other websites.
  • Any pages you create and link to “are truly more valuable to your readers than any other external link you might provide.

O’Reilly’s post got me thinking: is it better to “spread the love” or to “keep it in the family“?

After a debate and a discussion with some of my associates, I came to the conclusion that O’Reilly is partially right.

Here are my suggestions when it comes to answering the question “To link or not to link?“:

  • Link only when necessary. In my opinion, some link far too often and without enough thought. When linking to another website (or your own), make sure that it’s necessary – don’t link out of laziness (i.e. to direct your users to information you’re too lazy to provide).

    Are you building on or responding to something that was located on that website? Would it otherwise be difficult for a user to find the information you’re linking to? Does the link provide real value?

    If you can’t answer “yes” to any of these questions, it’s worth considering whether or not you really need to send your users to another page.

  • Link to the best source. O’Reilly is right – when linking, make sure that you’re linking to the best source you can find whether or not that link is on your website or a third-party website.

    When encouraging your users to take any action that represents a further investment of their time and attention, your focus should be on adding value. In fact, taking such an approach is part of a solid SEO philosophy.

  • Don’t play favorites. One of the most annoying things about blogs, for instance, is the easily-discernable games that popular bloggers play. Some have a tendency to link to “friends” and to not link to “rivals.”

    Your users will notice these things and my opinion is that it’s best to leave nepotism and petty rivalries out of linking decisions.

Bottom line – your link policy should be based on the dynamics of your website, not on ideology.

If 75% of your links are internal because you happen to provide the most authoritative information about the subject matter, you shouldn’t necessarily look to reduce internal links by 25% just because Tim O’Reilly thinks you should.

If 80% of your links are external because you feel that external sources usually add the most value, there’s no reason to try to reduce that number for your benefit alone, degrading the quality of the information you make available to your users in the process.

And if you choose not to link very often because you don’t see a real need to, you shouldn’t start linking for linking’s sake.

O’Reilly is right that “the web is a great example of a system that works because most sites create more value than they capture” but value isn’t necessarily created by trying to meet link “quotas” of various kinds.

Use some common sense and put your users first when linking and you’ll do just fine.